Gender Discrimination & Social Norms in India

Gender inequality in India is a widely discussed topic by researchers as well as media (Sen, 2001 presents an overview). As the country’s economic and social indicators improve, there is an increasing demand for ending the discrimination against women. Research on the potential causes for gender inequality points towards social norms as a possible cause (for example, Vlassoff 2013). However, it is often not known or exhaustively described what exactly are the social norms that affect an average woman’s life in India over her lifetime? We try to throw some light on this by charting an average[i] Indian woman’s life in terms of her outcomes and the norms that affect her. Does the discrimination that begins in the womb continue through the woman’s life? And, are the social norms indicative of such discrimination?

The India Human Development Survey (IHDS)  is a nationally representative survey that allows us to paint a picture of the average Indian woman over her lifetime. The survey is administered to 41,554 households (64% rural) with the section on gender issues administered to a married woman between ages 15 to 49. I use the first wave of the survey (2005) to study the data from the point of view of the women.

Let us start with the sex ratio, which is defined as the number of females per thousand males. The graph below plots the overall sex ratio for the whole population of India, and the child sex ratio for children between ages 0 to 6 using the census data[ii]. The world average for the overall sex ratio and child sex ratio is 1030 and 952 respectively. These drop to 940 and 914 respectively for India according to the last census, pointing towards a strong gender imbalance.

Sans titre The growing literature on the sex ratio points towards son preference which leads to female foeticide, and discrimination in child health care as a primary reason for this disappointing trend. For the girls who are born and survive, papers find that parental investment is lower than for boys. For example, Barcellos et al (2012) find that boys receive significantly more childcare time and health resources than girls. And, in the IHDS data we note that the annual amount of money spent on education of boys is 20% more than that of girls.

The table below shows the time-use of children under 15 years in rural areas. The time spent by girls on collecting water and fuel is much higher than that spent by boys even though the farm-work time is almost equal for both.

Girls-rural Boys-rural
Time spent collecting water (minutes per day) 11.7 5.5
Time spent collecting fuel (minutes per week) 22.3 14
Time spent working on farm (hours per day) 3.5 3.4

In terms of education of the whole population, 44% of women have no education at all compared to 29% of men. If we look at the years of schooling completed then we note that 9% of women and 15% of men have more than 10 years of education. The average age of marriage for women is 17 years in rural areas, 18.6 in urban, and 16.8 in urban slums. 50% of the women across the country get married between the ages of 15-18 years. We don’t observe the age of marriage of the men, but we note that on average husbands are 5 years older than their wives. With majority of women getting married below or around the legal marriage age of 18 years, education is often not a priority for the women.

The wedding ceremony is an integral part of Indian customs, and all wedding expenses are usually paid by the parents (and not the bride/groom). The wedding can comprise many events with the main one being covered by the bride’s family. In the data the average expenditure of the boy’s family in both rural and urban areas is 4 times the annual household income, while for the girl’s family it is 6.5 times in rural and 7.4 times in urban areas. Apart from this it is common for the girl’s family to give gifts (dowry is banned by law) at the time of wedding that on average are 2 times the annual household income in rural and equal to the annual household income in the urban areas. This does not include gifts given in the form of gold, silver, land, car etc. These wedding customs often inculcate the perception of the daughter as a liability for the family especially as the parents do not expect any financial or old-age support from their daughter after marriage.

Next we look at how the marriage matching happens in India. 65% of the women report knowing their husband only on the wedding day, 10% less than one month and only 11% more than one year before the marriage. Around 60% say they had no choice in the decision of whom to marry. The fact that the woman does not know the spouse before marriage holds for the man too. However, what is crucial to note is that the most common living arrangement after marriage, 90% in our dataset, is that of the newly married couple living with the man’s family. This implies that the woman goes into a completely new household. Visiting her natal family is not a very regular affair with 70% reporting visiting their natal family only one to three times a year.

Looking at variables on decision-making we find that for the decision of how many children to have, 20% report having the most say while 75% report their husband having the most say. 74% have to ask for permission to go to the local health clinic. Female sterilization is the most common method of contraception with 67% of women in rural and 60% in urban areas reporting it as the primary method used.

Traditionally, only the sons could inherit property and assets. Though the inheritance law has been changed over the years, in practise it is still common that the daughter does not inherit anything. Only 15% women have a bank account in rural areas compared to 31% men. This disparity exists in urban areas too with 30% women and 53% men having a bank account. In addition, only 15% women in rural and urban areas have their name on house ownership or rental papers. The labour force participation rate (ratio between the labour force and the overall size of the 15-60 years cohort) for women is 50% in rural and 24% in urban areas, while for men it is 86% and 79% respectively. Out of these working women, only 20% are employed in jobs with a fixed wage/salary compared to 53% men.

In the analysis of the marital status we note that the reported divorce/separation rate is low in India with only 0.4% currently separated at time of the survey. 8% of women report being currently widowed compared to 2% of the men. A higher percentage of widowed women compared to men is expected as women live longer. However, in addition we observe that 4% and 2.4% of men have married more than once in rural and urban areas respectively, while these numbers are lower for women at 1.3% and 0.6%. This points towards tougher remarriage for women.

Finally we touch upon one of the main reasons cited for son-preference in India. Majority of Indians expect their son to financially support them during old age with 80% reporting such an expectation compared to 6% who expect their daughter to support them. This implies that in a country with low social security and pension coverage, sons are considered as a necessity for the security of parents in their old age.

From the simple analysis presented here we can note two things. First, there is discrimination against the average woman in India at various stages of her life. Second, we note that different social norms affect her differently than how they affect men. This leads to many open and challenging questions. Do these social norms actually cause the gender discrimination? For example, does paying for the wedding ceremonies lead parents to prefer sons and explain differential investments on children? If these norms matter, then how do they evolve? Can we target them using public policies? There is an immediate need to further our understanding on these topics to end any form of discrimination based on gender.


Sen, Amartya. “The many faces of gender inequality.” New republic (2001): 35-39.

Gender Equality and Inequality in Rural India, Carol Vlassoff

Barcellos, Silvia H., Leandro Carvalho, and Adriana Lleras-Muney. Child Gender and Parental Investments in India: Are Boys and Girls Treated Differently?. No. w17781. National Bureau of Economic Research, 2012.


[i] Studying average outcomes is, of course, only the first and most basic level of analysis.

[ii] We use the national census here as it allows us to plot the sex ratio over time.

This entry was posted in Inequality, Stereotype, Identity and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Gender Discrimination & Social Norms in India

  1. Pingback: A time for reforms? Revisiting the PCPNDT Act | debooWORKS

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